WSJ—Researchers and doctors are sounding the alarm over a new, more aggressive coronavirus strain from the Amazon area of Brazil, which they believe is responsible for a recent rise in deaths, as well as infections in younger people, in parts of South America.
Brazil’s daily death toll from the disease rose to its highest level yet this week, pushing the country’s total number of Covid-19 fatalities past a quarter of a million. On Tuesday, Brazil reported a record 1,641 Covid fatalities. Neighbor Peru is struggling to curb a second wave of infections.
The new variant, known as P.1, is 1.4 to 2.2 times more contagious than versions of the virus previously found in Brazil, and 25% to 61% more capable of reinfecting people who had been infected by an earlier strain, according to a study released Tuesday.
With mass vaccination a long way off across the region, countries such as Brazil risk becoming a breeding ground for potent versions of the virus that could render current Covid-19 vaccines less effective, public-health specialists warned.
A more prolonged pandemic could also devastate the economies of countries such as Brazil, slowing growth and expanding the country’s already large debt pile as the government extends payouts to the poor, economists said.
“We’re facing a dramatic situation here—the health systems of many states in Brazil are already in collapse and others will be in the next few days,” said Eliseu Waldman, an epidemiologist at the University of São Paulo.
Several doctors have reported a surge in younger patients in their Covid-19 wards, many in their 30s and 40s with no underlying health problems. In Peru, some doctors said patients are becoming seriously ill faster, just three or four days after the first symptoms emerged, compared with an average of nine to 14 days last year.
“The virus is behaving differently,” said Rosa Lopez, a doctor in the intensive-care unit at Lima’s Guillermo Almenara Irigoyen Hospital. “It’s really aggressive…the situation is very difficult, really terrible.”
The Amazonian strain, P.1, emerged in the Brazilian city of Manaus late last year and quickly caught the attention of Brazilian and international scientists who raced to map its spread. The variant’s large number of mutations to the spike protein, which helps the virus penetrate cells, have caused particular concern.
“We’re in the worst moment. I wouldn’t be surprised if P.1 is all over Brazil by now,” said Felipe Naveca, a researcher at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation who has studied the new strain. He estimated that Brazil is already home to hundreds of new Covid-19 variants, although P.1. is the most worrying so far, he said.
However, researchers are still at a loss as to why more young people appear to be falling ill and if P.1 is more deadly, or just more contagious.
“The recent epidemic in Manaus has strained the city’s healthcare system, leading to inadequate access to medical care,” wrote the authors of the P.1 study, which was led by Nuno Faria, a professor of virus evolution at Oxford University and Imperial College London.